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The Battle Between What Teachers Know & What Politicians Want

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

"Politics is about what happens rightnow, but education policy is about what happens five or 10 years from now. And it’s the second part of that phrase that explains a sometimes uncomfortable truth about policy and policymaking — in education, we really cannot say with certainty exactly how things will turn out in a decade, as the results based on student performance must be judged by longitudinal surveys for about a decade before judgment is passed."

"Unfortunately, that does not resonate with those whose job is to get elected to political offices. When individuals who promise to "fix the education system" and raise test scores, the focus is often centered on other plans to "get rid of bad teachers," "replace ineffective principals," and "repair failing schools." But when unilateral and/or radical change is made, it is often made in the pursuit of power and the politics of the moment to give the impression that "something is being done" rather than any altruistic reason."
(Steve Berlin, Senior Communications Manager, National Association of State Boards of Education)

This long-term vs. right now view of education is evident almost every day in the news media, where we hear incessant rumblings from both sides of the political aisle about the need for change, accountability, reform, standardization, common curriculums, etc. Almost none of this noise originates from the source that knows the most about the issues plaguing American education – teachers. An April 10, 2012 post in Education Week by education historian Diane Ravitch examined two recent surveys of teachers in order to reveal what they believe is important and unimportant in education. Here is a look at some of the most telling results and how they contrast with popular political opinion.


(Image from the Bristol Virginia Education Association)

What Teachers Think is Important
The following list contains the factors that teachers think have the greatest impact on improving academic achievement.

  • Family involvement and support
  • High expectations for all students
  • Fewer students in each class
  • Effective and engaged principals and building-level leaders
  • Ongoing, formative assessment that lets teachers know on a daily basis how students are doing
  • Active classroom participation by students
  • Reducing the number of students living in poverty or homeless
  • Assistance in dealing with students with behavioral problems
  • ELL support
    (Based on data from Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Primary Sources: 2012 survey and  the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher)

This is just a sample of some of the things that teachers believe – based on their experience in the classroom – would make a real difference in student achievement. Note that closing schools, increasing class size, decreasing funding, and firing teachers and administrators whose students don’t do well on standardized tests, are not on the list.

What Teachers Don’t Think is Important
This list contains the things that teachers think are the least important for improving academic achievement.

As an example of the disconnect between teachers and politicians, take the last point. Only seven percent of teachers think that state required standardized tests are essential, however, these are the only measures that policy makers often consider as indicators of success or failure before punishing schools, administrators, and teachers.

An Example of What Politicians Think Teachers Want
According to the surveys, there is a sharp contrast between what practicing educators want and what politicians and education policy makers tout as a way of retaining the best teachers. Politicians believe that “merit pay” is the most effective tool for recruiting and retaining the best teachers (Davidson & Pink, 2012). Teachers, in contrast believe that supportive leadership, familial involvement, help for students with behavioral problems, and more time for collaboration would be factors that would make them most likely to choose to remain educators, or that would help recruit the best new teachers. For practicing teachers, the least important factors for recruitment and retention were pay based on student performance, having teaching mentors or coaches, or being assigned additional, non-teaching responsibilities, even with additional compensation.

In addition to this fundamental disconnect between what politicians think teachers want and what teachers actually want, there is a public perception, perpetuated by political rhetoric and the media that recycles it, that teachers are lazy and don’t work as hard as other (usually more highly paid) professionals. The Scholastic-Gates survey showed that not only do teachers work a longer average work day than they are required to (between 10 hours 40 minutes and 11hours and 25 minutes, but a majority of them reported that they intend to teach "as long as I am able."

Teachers as Bakers
Returning to the basis for this conflict between politicians and teachers – the right now urgency of the politician vs. the necessarily long-term planning needed for successful education – we need to find a way, as a society, to be both patient with the process of education and supportive of the fact that it is a process. The world is constantly changing and teachers, the content, and teaching methodologies used constantly change with it. Using a standardized test to take a snapshot of this system in flux cannot provide a true picture of the process in action.

Think about educating a student like baking a cake. If you try to eat (evaluate) the cake at any point before it is fully cooked, your assessment of the finished product is going to be bad. Now imagine baking this cake and sampling it prematurely if you were working in a kitchen that did not have eggs, sugar, vanilla, butter, or a pan. Ever try to eat a mouthful of plain flour? That’s what it is like to hold teachers accountable for the unfinished students in their classes. Perhaps there is a finished product of education to “taste” at some point, but education is a lifelong process and evaluating the results really doesn’t work until much later in life – after the cake is finished baking and has had a chance to cool and be frosted. Politicians and society need a reality check about what can be expected from teachers working in unsupportive environments, trying to do more than is possible with the number of students and resources they have, and being judged based on a half-baked cake.

Listen to teachers; they know what they are talking about. They spend their lives in our schools, teaching our children, fighting for their credibility, accommodating our whimsical desire for change, and more often than not, they don’t complain. When they do find a voice, we need to take notice. Is there any real evidence that politicians have the public interest in mind? Unlikely, but teachers do what they do out of love, compassion, and true civic concern – give them credit for that.